Chronic loneliness has many causes—greater geographic mobility; the often isolating effects of technology; a culture that defines success as the pursuit of power, wealth, and fame. When children are asked what their parents want most for them, they say their parents value achievement over being kind to others. But the less we prioritize connections with other people and the more we allow the quality of our interactions to decline, the more our social muscle begins to atrophy. Just like any other muscle, it weakens out of disuse. This can make high-quality social connection even harder.
That’s why the potential effects of physical distance from other people are so worrisome. Enforced separation, even if temporary, threatens to further diminish our social muscle, which has already been weakened by the well-intentioned but isolating forces of the modern world.
In the current crisis, everyone has a role to play—not just in slowing the COVID-19 pandemic but in staving off a social recession. The two of us believe that not only can people maintain social connections during this era of distancing, but that they can also strengthen those connections. Consider these four strategies:
First, spend at least 15 minutes each day communicating with people you love (other than the people you’re living with). Videoconference with them so you can see them and hear their voices, giving you something like the full human experience of connection. You can do it over a meal and have a virtual lunch or dinner together. Fifteen minutes a day isn’t a lot of time, but it will make you feel better immediately and will strengthen your lifeline to the outside world.
Second, make the time you do spend with people as distraction-free as possible. If you live with others, find moments to check in—away from media and your to-do list. Being fully present can give you the space to be open and vulnerable and give the other person that chance too. When reaching out to people virtually, try to focus on the conversation as if the two of you were sitting across from each other. Looking directly at people during a video call makes peeking at Instagram or an email inbox harder. When we eliminate distraction, we increase the quality of our interaction with others. Especially when our time is limited, quality matters.
Third, practice moments of solitude. Solitude, unlike isolation or loneliness, is a feeling of being comfortable and even joyful in your own company. But it’s not easy to come by. Technology has completely filled the white space we once had in our lives—those empty moments when going to work or waiting for a friend at a restaurant.
So start small. Find a few moments a day to put away technology and work and enjoy a few moments of silence. You can use this time for meditation, prayer, or a solo walk in nature. You can give yourself permission to acknowledge whatever complex emotions you’re feeling. You can remember something or someone you’re grateful for. One of us, Vivek, had a physician mentor who would pause and take a deep breath before he entered a patient’s room, using those few seconds to remind himself how grateful he was to have the opportunity to participate in someone’s healing. Such moments give us a sense of grounding that helps us better connect with others.